Hillary Clinton's book on the 2016 campaign, What Happened, is her explanation of how Donald Trump became leader of the free world, and she did not. The book is out tomorrow, and today in The Atlantic she gives the world a preview.
How did we get here?
Trump may be uniquely hostile to the rule of law, ethics in public service, and a free press. But the assault on our democracy didn’t start with his election. He is as much a symptom as a cause of what ails us. Think of our body politic like a human body, with our constitutional checks and balances, democratic norms and institutions, and well-informed citizenry all acting as an immune system protecting us from the disease of authoritarianism. Over many years, our defenses were worn down by a small group of right-wing billionaires—people like the Mercer family and Charles and David Koch—who spent a lot of time and money building an alternative reality where science is denied, lies masquerade as truth, and paranoia flourishes. By undermining the common factual framework that allows a free people to deliberate together and make the important decisions of self-governance, they opened the way for the infection of Russian propaganda and Trumpian lies to take hold. They've used their money and influence to capture our political system, impose a right-wing agenda, and disenfranchise millions of Americans.
I don’t agree with critics who say that capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy—but unregulated, predatory capitalism certainly is. Massive economic inequality and corporate monopoly power are antidemocratic and corrode the American way of life.
Meanwhile, hyperpolarization now extends beyond politics into nearly every part of our culture. One recent study found that in 1960, just 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they’d be displeased if their son or daughter married a member of the other political party. In 2010, 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats said they’d be upset by that. The strength of partisan identity—and animosity—helps explain why so many Republicans continue to back a president so manifestly unfit for office and antithetical to many of the values and policies they once held dear. When you start seeing politics as a zero-sum game and view members of the other party as traitors, criminals, or otherwise illegitimate, then the normal give-and-take of politics turns into a blood sport.
There is a tendency, when talking about these things, to wring our hands about “both sides.” But the truth is that this is not a symmetrical problem. We should be clear about this: The increasing radicalism and irresponsibility of the Republican Party, including decades of demeaning government, demonizing Democrats, and debasing norms, is what gave us Donald Trump. Whether it was abusing the filibuster and stealing a Supreme Court seat, gerrymandering congressional districts to disenfranchise African Americans, or muzzling government climate scientists, Republicans were undermining American democracy long before Trump made it to the Oval Office.
Now we must do all we can to save our democracy and heal our body politic.
First, we’ve got to mobilize massive turnout in the 2018 midterms. There are fantastic candidates running all over the country, making their compelling cases every day about how they’ll raise wages, bring down health-care costs, and fight for justice. If they win, they’ll do great things for America. And we could finally see some congressional oversight of the White House.
When the dust settles, we have to do some serious housecleaning. After Watergate, Congress passed a whole slew of reforms in response to Richard Nixon’s abuses of power. After Trump, we’re going to need a similar process. For example, Trump’s corruption should teach us that all future candidates for president and presidents themselves should be required by law to release their tax returns. They also should not be exempt from ethics requirements and conflict-of-interest rules.
A main area of reform should be improving and protecting our elections. The Senate Intelligence Committee has made a series of bipartisan recommendations for how to better secure America’s voting systems, including paper ballot backups, vote audits, and better coordination among federal, state, and local authorities on cybersecurity. That’s a good start. Congress should also repair the damage the Supreme Court did to the Voting Rights Act by restoring the full protections that voters need and deserve, as well as the voting rights of Americans who have served time in prison and paid their debt to society. We need early voting and voting by mail in every state in America, and automatic, universal voter registration so every citizen who is eligible to vote is able to vote. We need to overturn Citizens United and get secret money out of our politics. And you won’t be surprised to hear that I passionately believe it’s time to abolish the Electoral College.
But even the best rules and regulations won’t protect us if we don’t find a way to restitch our fraying social fabric and rekindle our civic spirit. There are concrete steps that would help, like greatly expanding national-service programs and bringing back civics education in our schools. We also need systemic economic reforms that reduce inequality and the unchecked power of corporations and give a strong voice to working families. And ultimately, healing our country will come down to each of us, as citizens and individuals, doing the work—trying to reach across divides of race, class, and politics and see through the eyes of people very different from ourselves. When we think about politics and judge our leaders, we can’t just ask, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” We have to ask, “Are we better off? Are we as a country better, stronger, and fairer?” Democracy works only when we accept that we’re all in this together.
In 1787, after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman on the street outside Independence Hall, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” That response has been on my mind a lot lately. The contingency of it. How fragile our experiment in self-government is. And, when viewed against the sweep of human history, how fleeting. Democracy may be our birthright as Americans, but it’s not something we can ever take for granted. Every generation has to fight for it, has to push us closer to that more perfect union. That time has come again.
All of this should sound very, very familiar to ZVTS readers, because Hillary Clinton here says what I've been blogging about for the last several years, what I've documented daily in our descent into the Republican-controlled hell that we are in.
It was no accident.